Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Margaret Middleton on Family Inclusion in Museums

                                                       (Photo Credit: Matthew Clowney)

Margaret Middleton is a Boston-based exhibit developer and designer. A museum geek and queer activist, she has spoken all over the country about the importance of family inclusion in museums. Most recently Margaret produced Mimi's Family: Photography by Matthew Clowney, an art exhibit for children featuring a family with a transgender grandparent.  

We are happy to welcome Margaret back to ExhibiTricks to share her thoughts on making museums more welcoming places for diverse families.

What does family inclusion mean?

Families make up 40% of all museum audiences (American Alliance of Museums, 2006 Museum Financial Information).  “Family” is meant to refer broadly to intergenerational learning groups, but all too often it becomes a code word. We often use “family” to mean a nuclear family with two heterosexual, legally married parents of the same race and their biological children, residing in the same household. 

According to Strong Families, “4 out of 5 people living in the US … do not live behind the picket fence—[their] lives fall outside outdated notions of family, with a mom at home and a dad at work.” Museums who aren’t actively engaging families who don’t fit that codified definition aren’t serving the majority of families.

Family inclusion is about actively welcoming diverse families in museums.

How can museums accommodate a greater diversity of families?

Just as you strive to incorporate racial diversity in your signage and marketing, make sure that visual depictions of families in your museum are varied. Include single parents, same-sex parents, multi-racial families, and multiple generations. If you have a reading nook, populate it with books that show many kinds of families. This is a good list to start with.

One of the subtle ways museums signal the type of family they expect is through seating. Instead of fixed benches or square tables with four chairs, try modular seating that is easily moved and reconfigured by visitors to accommodate a variety of families. Make sure to include several seating heights to accommodate visitors of different sizes. Bean bag chairs are fun but they are tough for older folks and anyone with mobility issues. If you use bean bags, make sure there are more accessible options available too.

Gender inclusive bathrooms can meet the needs of transgender and nonbinary family members or anyone else who may not feel comfortable or safe using gender-segregated restrooms. They are often single-stall and accessible so they can accommodate wheelchairs, strollers, and anyone who needs assistance in the bathroom, including children. They often have changing tables too (which should also be present in both men’s and women’s restrooms).

Unfortunately, signage for gender inclusive bathrooms often reads “Family Bathroom” and depicts a family like this:

Opt for a more inclusive sign like this:

All-Gender Restroom sign available at: 

Family memberships
Make sure your policies fit your expanded definition of “family.” Instead of defining a family membership as a membership for two adults and their children, offer flexible memberships that accommodate families with any number of adults and children and charge accordingly. This makes room for single caregivers and families with more than two adults in them. 

Do away with mandatory gendered honorifics like Ms. and Mr. and instead of “mom,” “dad,” or “parent” categories, simply use the word “adult.” Family memberships should not be limited to “members of a household” so as not to leave out families that live apart like divorced families or families with hired caregivers.

What’s a good place to begin?

Museums are not exactly known for being nimble when it comes to change. If you’re not a top decision maker at your museum, policy and infrastructure changes may be harder for you to influence. One of the easiest (and cheapest!) ways to cultivate an institutional culture of family inclusion is to start expanding your museum’s definition of family through language.

Host a brown bag lunch to discuss the meaning of the word “family.” You can also use the Family Inclusive Language chart I created (below) to talk about the assumptions we make about our visitors and how to avoid embarrassing and even hurtful interactions. The new words you choose will change the way you greet visitors at the admission desk, give tours, write label copy, compose tweets, and update the Facebook page.

These language shifts are simple, but don’t mistake them for being superficial. Words have power. In fact, according to cognitive scientist Lera Boroditsky, “Studies have shown that changing how people talk changes how they think.” You actually have the power to challenge your own implicit bias.

A few carefully chosen words can go a long way in helping visitors feel more welcome in your museum. Start with language, and before long it will be even easier to make the case for further change.

You can follow Margaret on Twitter @magmidd. To see Margaret’s work and to learn more about her family inclusion workshops, visit her website. Family Inclusive Language posters can be ordered here: 

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